It’s the Great Pumpkin Season, Charlie Brown!

I have a different theory altogether about the origins of manufacturers’ efforts to pumpkin spice the world at the start of each September.

Pumpkin Season is here!

…pumpkin spice lattes
…pumpkin spice bagels
…pumpkin spice donuts
…pumpkin spice pound cake
…pumpkin spice pancakes
…and, yes, even pumpkin spice Cheerios

Photo by Sheila G. Hunter. Used by permission.

But wait. Am I misrepresenting the season? Am I on the verge of doing a terrible disservice to the noble pumpkin that hales from the Cucurbita genus and is therefore a great aunt to cucumbers, melons, and squash?

Yes, I can almost hear the exasperated eye-rolls of the pumpkin season deniers and pumpkin purists. The 65,900 acres of pumpkins harvested in the US in 2018 (according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service) were not grown in soil seasoned with cinnamon and cloves. None of the more than 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins that turned those acres orange last fall tasted or smelled anything like a latte.

That’s because pumpkin and pumpkin spice products are connected in name only, right?

A Matter of Taste
Photo by Jill Crainshaw.

Five spices make up the addictive (at least to some people) flavors in the famous (or is it infamous) “Pumpkin Spice Latte” (PSL): cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice. These spices, mixed together in various proportions into coffee or cake batter or ice cream, somehow make some of us think “pumpkin.”

And I have to admit that even to a pumpkin season devotee like me, this is something of a curiosity. Like my friend says, “Pumpkin itself has no taste—lots of nutrients—but no taste.”

Well, I suppose the whole debate over Pumpkin Season actually is a matter of taste. And I have to admit, while I think pumpkin does have a taste, a pumpkin picked from my backyard garden and baked in my kitchen oven doesn’t taste or smell like a PSL.

Over the Harvest Moon about Pumpkin Spice Everything
As pictured online in an advertisement.

So—what ignited the pumpkin spice craze that led to over $80,000,000 worth of PSL sales in 2018? Why are so many people so over the harvest moon about pumpkin spice everything? And, as an aside, if you will, who is buying that Limited Edition Pumpkin Spice Beard Oil I saw on my newfeed? (Even this pumpkin fan was surprised to discover this addition to the seasonal offerings!)

A 2015 BBC News Magazine author, Vanessa Bradford, sought answers to these questions. She interviewed food scientist, Kantha Shelke, who offered this insight:

“Pumpkin is not a favourite food. Children and many adults often avoid pumpkin as they do rutabagas and some root vegetables. But many of us believe we should be happier (and nicer and more giving) during the holidays and pumpkin-spice products are just one of those things – like juniper and pine and wood burning stoves and fireplaces – that can change our frame of mind.”

Kantha Shelke

Does this mean we can attribute skyrocketing pumpkin spice everything sales to nostalgia, marketing, and social media hype along with a rather bittersweet (which is not a PSL flavor) desire for a particular mind-and-heart-set?

The Great Pumpkin Theory

I, for one, am eager for transformed hearts and minds. But I don’t really think PSLs or other pumpkin-y products are a necessary variable of transformation. (What the necessary variables are is subject matter for another post that in a stroke of irony has to do with “seeing Jesus in a mocha“–not a PSL.)

I have a different theory altogether about the origins of manufacturers’ efforts to pumpkin spice the world at the start of each September.

Last year’s Jack-O-Lantern at my house, carved by Sheila Hunter. Photo by Jill Crainshaw.

Do you remember back in the 1960s when Charles Schulz wrote and produced the animated TV special, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown? In the show, Linus gives up trick-or-treating on Halloween night and stays awake into the night waiting for the Great Pumpkin to come to his “sincere pumpkin patch”?

The Great Pumpkin never shows up.

My theory? Those of us in my generation (I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide who that is) who sympathized with Linus have spent the last five years filling the void left by the no-showing Great Pumpkin with, well, the spice of pumpkin that doesn’t require an actual pumpkin or even the pumpkin patch.

Spicing Up Life and Sowing Seeds

I love Pumpkin Season. Yes, I know that my frame of mind and my shopping during said season are probably being shaped by the advertising and marketing powers that be. Even so, I relish the first day of Pumpkin Season (September 21 for me, my birthday) and the way it spices up my life rhythms with the promise of autumn.

I also relish the opportunities Pumpkin Season provides for me to sit down in a favorite coffee shop with a friend, enjoy a sip ‘o the season, and delight in the delectable spices we contribute to each other’s lives.

And in those moments of sharing, perhaps we sow seeds (and not pumpkin seeds) that have the potential to transform hearts and minds.

“Harvest Moon, 2018. Photo by Jill Crainshaw.

By the Jabbok

What blessings do we crave?

Held and Holding on

It was night.
And they wrestled.
By the Jabbok.

Jacob. Heel-grabbing birthright stealer. He spends a lifetime outsmarting challengers and dodging confrontations. And he is good at both. When he arrives at the Jabbok, he counts his blessings, names each camel and wife and servant one by one. There are many.

But then he sends them on across the river. Everything that defines him. Everything that hides him in a shroud of self-unknowing.

Tomorrow Jacob will cross the river. To meet his estranged brother, Esau, whose anger has had 20 years to stew in the birthright bowl.

But tonight, Jacob is alone. By the Jabbok.

Jacob’s all-nighter

Was it river canyon wreslemania with backbreakers, chokeslams, and an Undertaker smackdown? Did their feet sink into the mud as they prowled around each other? In Rembrandt’s painting of this scene, a shape-shifting androgynous angel holds a wounded Jacob in an intimate embrace.

Jacob. Holding on and held. Changed. In the marrow of his bones. By the Jabbok.

Preacher and poet James Weldon Johnson imagines such a river. “Up from the bed of a river God scooped clay. And there–this Great God–toiled over a lump of clay until he shaped it in God’s own image. Then he blew into it the breath of life.”

Could that be Jacob? Scooped out of the mud. Created again. By the Jabbok.

But clay sometimes resists

And Jacob had been resisting all of his life–resisting being born second in a system that privileged first-borns (sons, that is), resisting anything that held him back.

So as the sunrises kisses the dust they have kicked up–Jacob is still resisting.

But now, Jacob–changed–resists letting go until he receives a blessing.

What blessing do we crave?

Perhaps wrestling by our lives’ Jabbok has taught us. God, like manna and sea-parting winds, comes to us in the night, when we can’t see what is right in front of us, when answer we had never thought to question come undone.

What takes hold of us then, when illusions about our own strength have been stripped away?

God’s grace. Not manageable grace we can maneuver but wild, fierce, fearless grace stirred up–by the Jabbok.

Perhaps wrestling by the Jabbok has shown us. Though we have prevailed in some things, holding onto those accomplishments means little unless we open ourselves to be held by divine love. Love that might come to us as a stranger. By the Jabbok.

Perhaps wrestling by the Jabbok has taught us–

Jabbok is the struggle to get up in the morning when sorrow has tethered our feet to the night.

Jabbok is twilight tossing and turning to understand or to forgive or to stand up in the face of what we know is wrong.

Jabbok is Ferguson

and Flint.

Jabbok is Mother Emmanuel and Black Lives Matter.

Jabbok is a lifelong nighttime of struggles against injustices.

And Jabbok is also the way home

And Jabbock is also the way home-

Jabbok is the place where we wrestle with an embodied faith that is not fragile. It is where we find courage to speak out against harm done in God’s name.

Jabbok is where we decide to stay in the struggle until God has

unearthed us
created us again
breathed into our bones–life–
by the Jabbok
a heel-grabber becomes a wrestling one who prevails.

Jacob becomes Israel. And we become called ones who whisper into the night who we are and hear breathed out over the river’s tintinnabulation–yes, you are that and more.

As day breaks–

Sunlight might cling to dust stirred up by the midnight mayhem. Jabbok mud may stain our feet for a life time. But that is gift. Because Jabbok could be our road to Emmaus.

Jabbok could be our Pentecost Eve when Spirit winds blow through nailed-shut windows and stir up heart-fires. We dare not forget the night. Or keep our hearts shut off from the blessing that comes in the morning–

Photo by Jill Crainshaw

In the morning, when we cross to the other side of the river: “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept” (Genesis 33).

There is always another river to cross

No permanent dwellings by the Jabbok. Wounded spirits and broken bodies are out there on the other side. And we have learned things by passing by this way that give us endurance to hold vigil with others as they wrestle and joy to dance with them when they arrive home in the morning.

That is the blessing. There is always another river to cross–and on the other side–unexpected, even estranged Holy Others. And there is also the wisdom the God-wrestler speaks through grace-seasoned tears: “To see your face was like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33). Toiling over a lump of mud and breathing into it the breath of life. By the Jabbok.

Note: Former Dean Gail R. O’Day gifted me with a print depicting the story of Jacob and his dream of ladders and angels. That print was hung in my office today. I have been thinking about Jacob’s complex life as I admire the print.

Churchgoer Sees Jesus in a Mocha

To sip together at God’s table, even with strangers, is to share God’s wide-open, life-altering, cosmos-sustaining love and grace.

well, not really, but God’s Spirit was present in that mocha moment. . .

Note: I first wrote this post in June 2015. My mother has since died, and on Sundays I often think about her and our mocha moments. I revisited this piece for #blogtober. As I reread and revised it for today’s post, I realized—many people are hungrier than ever for a glimpse of the sacred, in particular when it is revealed through justice-making and shared hope.

“Churchgoer Sees Jesus in a Mocha.” Can’t we picture such a headline in our news feeds? We have seen announcements like it before: “‘Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese’ Sells for $28,000.” The now-famous grilled cheese was reported to have an imprint of the Virgin Mary’s face on it. It had been stored in a baggie in a bedroom dresser for ten years before we heard about it in the news in 2004.

$28,000? Are we that hungry for a glimpse of the sacred?

Social media outlets have been abuzz recently about churches in survivor mode. Statistics paint a grim picture of the future of institutional Christianity. What are churches offering that people aren’t buying? 

What are we hungry for today?

A mocha stirred up these thoughts for me. You see, I have been seeing something that looks a whole lot God’s Spirit swirling about in a mocha I have a date with each week. 

The mocha itself is at best mediocre. I get it for free from one of those institutional coffee machines you find in hospitals or convenience stores. I press one of six buttons–hot chocolate, mocha, cappuccino (regular or decaf) or coffee (regular or decaf). The machine ponders my choice. Then it grinds and sputters and spits my beverage into a 6-ounce cup.

This particular machine resides in my mother’s senior adult apartment community. When my mother moved to my city, I was glad that the transition was not as difficult as other parental moves I had heard about. My mother pared down her stuff and moved with some ease from her house of 45 years into a studio apartment. The ascetic quality of her new space suits her just fine. 

More difficult was the change her move sparked for me. Overnight my schedule became tied to hers. My mother’s life became less cluttered, mine more cluttered.

That is how the mocha machine came to dispense more than just a mocha. I organize my mother’s medications every week. I also do her laundry. Once these tasks are done, she and I go downstairs to wait for her lunch hour. While we wait, I sip on a mocha.

I have never been a devoted mocha drinker, but the day the mocha machine was “out of order,” I was too. I had come to anticipate drinking that Styrofoam-seasoned, somewhat chocolate flavored drink.

I sat to wait with Mom the day the mocha machine was on the fritz. The stories and conversations went on around me as usual, and I found myself laughing and joining in. The weekly mocha had helped me in those initial months of transition to sit and listen and hear the wisdom-infused storytelling of my mother and her new friends. It had offered Spirit-sweetened seasoning to my caregiving activities.

Now, even without the mocha, I was connected somehow. Perhaps what many churchgoers seek is not unlike what I seek as a caregiver: moments when God’s Spirit sneaks in to stir up and transform.

If people go to church at all, they go seeking moments when their life stories are heard and held with care. They go wanting to experience something about their place in the human community. They go to encounter and even join forces with a God who is working to end injustice and heal our world. Neither exacting doctrinal analysis nor sentimentalized sacramentality will accomplish these things.

But perhaps cultivating holy “mocha moments” can. Coffee shops are popular these days. Many people love to grab a cup of java with friends over breakfast biscuits. Others go to coffee shops to drink their favorite roast at a solo table while working on their laptops. But even those of us who drink our coffee solo at coffee shops are not alone. Not really. We notice, we regulars, when Susan is not at her usual corner table. 

Could it be that we humans seek everyday community-making rituals and sometimes even embrace them as everyday sacred? Hmm … and could this mean that God is already loose and at work in the world? Does it mean that churches don’t have sole (or even primary) responsibility for naming and managing God’s presence beyond their walls?

I say “yes” to all of these questions.

Churches need to think about how their public and spiritual identities can be born again for our hyper-connected, coffee-shop-community times. Churches also need to pay attention to gifts already present in their worship traditions.

I learned as a child to look for Jesus in a bit of bread and a sip of drink. Before I started partaking of communion or learned anything about communion’s theological intricacies, I watched when folks in our church tipped their heads back to drain those tiny cups. I noticed that when my father returned to our pew after communion he had a different smell. I wanted to taste that drink. I wanted to smell different like he did. I also learned as a child that God loves me and others no matter what. God’s grace is about these things.

To sip together at God’s table, even with strangers, is to share God’s wide-open, life-altering, cosmos-sustaining love and grace.

Churches that will thrive in the future will fling open their doors not only to let God’s Spirit in but also to share physical food and drink with hungry people. They will also offer with determined joy God’s gifts of radical welcome and fierce generosity to all people.

Perhaps to the extent that we learn to welcome all—friends and strangers—to our church tables we make possible more of those everyday grace-filled moments when people glimpse something that resembles Jesus, even in a mediocre mocha.

Summon the Wailing-Women

Lament is a revolutionary act because it refuses to hide the raw realities of life beneath a veneer of sentimentalized spirituality or triumphant overcoming.

                                                

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“Lamenting Woman,” by Sheila G. Hunter. Taken at God’s Acre, Home Moravian Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina


Come Lament.
Bring your tears.
​​​Scatter them along rocky trails,
​​​dissipating petals of unrefined truth
​​​to water dry paths.

​​​Lean in close, Lament.
​​​Place your wizened head
​​​on weighed down shoulders;
​​​whisper-sing in aching ears.

        –Jill Crainshaw

Three public acts of violence shattered innocent lives this week. Pipe bombs were sent to political leaders and news agencies. A white man shot and killed two African Americans at a grocery store in Kentucky. Another white man shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire on worshipers at Pittsburgh synagogue. These acts of hatred and others like them across our nation summon us—yet again—to consider what we can do each day to resist the culture of violence that is growing in our nation.

These acts also summon us to lament, for the resisting work we need to do begins, I think, with human communities learning again how to lament. People in ancient communities like the prophet Jeremiah’s community understood lament. Lament was a way people of faith cried out to God in the face of pain and loss that seared hearts and battered souls. Lament was a communal act. Lament was a ritual act passed from one generation to the next. Why? Because the heartache that accompanies great loss is deeply personal and the cloud of witnesses, both historic and contemporary, that surround those in pain—to listen, hold vigil, weep with—prevents weeping from being an isolating experience. Lament arises from and returns to communities of faith and trust, and because of this communal dimension, lament—and lament’s wordless, soundless contortions of pain, anger and grief—is sometimes the only thing that keeps people going when everything good about life seems lost. The very fact of our humanity—its fragility and mortality—needs lament.

As we face the violence in our world today—against black and brown bodies, against immigrants, against people in the LGBTQ community, against women and children, against religious communities and others—and as we seek ways to respond, acts of lament are necessary. Lament is a vital and even revolutionary act because it refuses to hide the raw realities of life beneath a veneer of sentimentalized spirituality or triumphant overcoming. Lament turns her eyes and looks with grief-ravaged love on the violated bodies and weeping family members we see too often in news-feeds from towns and cities across our land. Then, Lament beckons us to see the pain and hear the heartbreak, to repent and seek God’s grace. Lament beckons us to stand with each other. Weep with each other. Wail in grief and rage with each other. And then work with each other across our differences to resist hatred and restore love and grace.

Hear these words of lament from the prophet Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible:

7 Thus says the Lord of hosts:
Consider, and summon the wailing-women to come;
  send for the skilled women to come;
18 let them quickly raise a dirge over us,
  so that our eyes may run down with tears,
  and our eyelids flow with water.
19 For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion:
  ‘How we are ruined!
  We are utterly shamed,
because we have left the land,
  because they have cast down our dwellings.’

20 Hear, O women, the word of the Lord,
  and let your ears receive the word of his mouth;
teach to your daughters a dirge,
  and each to her neighbour a lament.
21 ‘Death has come up into our windows,
  it has entered our palaces,
to cut off the children from the streets
  and the young people from the squares.’     Jeremiah 9

Indeed, death has come up into our windows and entered our palaces, and we wail. But our weeping is not enough. Our heart-brokenness is not enough. When Lament is allowed to live out loud as a part of faith, people have the freedom to express not only their deep sorrows but also their outrage and protest when violence, death, and injustice persist. To embody lament as a community is to resist as a community those systems that perpetuate hatred. To join Lament’s journey is to walk into tomorrow and the next day and the next determined somehow, by the power of God’s persistent Spirit, to make space for God’s promises of peace and abundant life for all people.

 

Summer Solstice Epiphany

I do not understand why some of our nation’s leaders are doing what they are doing.

Because I do not understand their actions, I have gained even greater clarity about why I do what I do as a theological educator at Wake forest University School of Divinity.

Let me explain.

Today is summer solstice in the U.S., a day when the sun shines longer than on any other day of the year. Hostile and violent forces are at work in our world today to keep hurting people from knowing the hope and warmth of life’s light. We need these extra hours of sunlight to seek how to live God’s Gospel truth in our times. We need a summer solstice Epiphany.

What is a summer solstice Epiphany?   The ancient sages in Matthew 2, commonly known as the wise people in the Christian Christmas story, followed a God-flung orb of light to Jesus’ birthing place. Many Christian traditions have located the story of the sages’ journey on day of the liturgical year in January known as Epiphany.

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “a striking appearance.” We cannot wait for another January to look for God’s light to reveal a way for the human community to journey toward justice and renewed hope. We need to ask now what the manifestation of God in Jesus means in a world where so many fear for their lives, where too many innocents are abused and slaughtered. How are we who live in a world of such harsh and immoral realities to incarnate Incarnation—right now? These questions are urgent. People’s lives and well-being are at stake.

Matthew’s Epiphany story reveals powerful wisdom for our times. The sages, upon encountering the child Jesus, went home by another way (Mt. 2:12). I am struck by two things about this story on this day in 2018 of creation’s longest light. First, the sages had a home to go to. They were people with positions of power in their contexts. They could go home. Second, the sages decided to take different, less familiar route home to resist doing what Herod asked them to do. They decided not to take a route that would perpetuate a state-sanctioned system of violence and injustice. They risked something about their own lives because of what they encountered in the faces of a young child and family. Could they have gone back to confront Herod? Perhaps they should have and perhaps they did. What we know is that having encountered the truth of who God is in the face of a child, their usual way of going was changed.

This is why I do what I do as a theological educator who is also a Presbyterian Church (USA) Minister of Word and Sacrament. I believe this is also why we do what we do at the School of Divinity. We invite students to be aware of their power as human beings and religious leaders to resist Herod by following the unexpected ways of the Gospel. We spend time in conversation, worship, and prayer across our many differences seeking God’s wisdom for how we live and learn together. We also foster in each other a capacity to discern ways to risk something about our own lives for the sake of the lives of vulnerable others. This is work worth doing—work that must be done—in a world where too many people are denied their worth as human beings.

On this day in June 2018 when the God-flung orb of light called the sun looks out from the skies longer than on any other day of the year, perhaps our souls will be stirred anew. Now is a time for us to shine the light of Gospel truths on lies perpetuated by people who abuse their place and power. Is this stirring—this call—new? No. We here in the U.S. need to lament and atone for a history of injustices justified by people who have bent and are bending their version of the Gospel toward their own ends. We are haunted by questions today that have followed us across the landscape of our history. Have we forgotten or perhaps never understood what it means to be children of God created in the image of God?

The sages in Matthew saw God in the face of a child. Can we? Do we? Can we see God in the face of Antwon Rose, an unarmed teenager shot by a police officer in Pittsburgh this week? Can we see God in the faces of children and mothers and fathers separated by injustice at our borders and within our communities?

We need Epiphany. We need a new understanding of and commitment to what it means to be human together, created in God’s image and living in community here on and with God’s earth. I do not understand why some of our nation’s leaders are doing what they are doing. I do know why I do what I do at the School of Divinity. I do what I do to encounter and be in community with students whose passion for ministry and whose deep belief in the power of Gospel Good News make me continue my vocational journey in transformed ways. I do what I do at the School of Divinity because I believe our work together changes us and sends us out, knowing that we are called as we go to risk something about our own lives for the sake of the lives of others.

I wrote the following poem/prayer for a January Epiphany Day. I have revised it for this summer solstice call to Epiphany.

Star-watchers.
Eyes wide opened
by unexpected light
in backyard night skies,
“Bearing gifts they traversed afar” to
investigate
explore
consider.
Then—eyes wide-opened
by what they saw—
rerouted,
home by another way.

Ah, the peculiarity of Christmastide Epiphanies:
shepherds
cows and sheep and donkeys,
an angel-frightened teenager
and a dream-troubled carpenter.
sky-gazing Zoroastrians
on camels’ backs
tracing a celestial light-beam to an
unfamiliar place.

But what of the rest of the story?
Menacing messages from powerful places,
weeping of innocents,
mama and daddy,
baby held tight
fleeing
violence
death.
Did they know—
To keep their bodies safe
was to keep safe God’s Beloved Child
but only for a moment.

In all of it—
holy visits and visions and vistas
detours and deliberate stars
midnight border crossings
into unfriendly backyards
children’s cries
wailing lullabies
“Hush, little baby! Don’t say a word.”
Immanuel—-God-with-us?
In us?
Through us?
In spite of us?

Galactic light-spheres align yet again
Sacred solstice sun shines into night hours:
Burn away the fog of unknowing, O God.
Give us eyes wide-opened
by what we see.
Call us to another way
so that we risk our lives to
bring together
Life
Love
Hope

 

this is my body

I am an ordained ministry and a worship professor at a School of Divinity. This week for our Maundy Thursday chapel service, I was the preacher and communion presider. For the first time in my 30 years of ministry, I dropped half of the loaf of communion bread on the floor. Yes. I dropped the bread. I was mortified, but after an awkward silence, we nevertheless partook of the holy meal. The experience was profound for me.

That day in chapel we remembered Jesus’ last night with his friends. In the two days since Thursday, I have been remembering—all of the fallen bodies I keep reading about in the news. What a broken world this is—and how urgent it is that we remember the fragilities and possibilities of our humanity.

this is my body

no one expected
such unrehearsed irreverence
least of all me
after many and myriad
maundy thursdays of
breaking
blessing
sharing
holy bread

but there i stood
by the table
grabbing
for the bread of life as it
slipped from my hands and
with awkward acrobatics
tumbled
down
down
to the unhallowed
stony
feet-trampled
sanctuary
floor

the loaf was heavy that day
a body resisting
being broken
until—
something startled
my struggling hands and
i was left
holding half a whole
of a body
fallen

who can take
fractured tomorrows
bless them
and not bear the scars
in aching palms

i knelt down and
took up the remains
all of us
ate
together

this is my body
remember